Why Labour should stick with the “opt-out” for union members

Luke Akehurst

As an ex-General Secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt is insightful and thoughtful on the challenge of reforming Party funding. He sets out his views here.

But I think he has got it wrong in saying Ed Miliband should have gone one step further and advocated a change to the way the trade union political levy works from opt-out (you have to say if you don’t want to pay a small amount each year to Labour) to opt-in.

Not only can union members opt-out, there are a further three methods by which they can express their opinion about their political levy payments to Labour:

  • They don’t have to join an affiliated union. There are non-Labour affiliated unions in virtually all lines of work. There are no longer any “closed shop” workplaces where membership of a particular union is compulsory.
  • They are balloted every ten years on whether to maintain a political fund across the union or not. These ballots are competitive.
  • They can bring disaffiliation motions to their union conferences to propose severing the link with Labour. In many unions a vigorous debate on this happens at every conference.

I think this is enough.

I don’t believe that there is public or union member demand for a move to opt-in.

It looks like something that is just a technical device to dilute the number of people paying the political levy to Labour and further reduce our funding. It shifts the default position to one that is unhelpful to Labour without enhancing anyone’s rights to choose, which is already enshrined in the opt-out system.

The whole point about trade unionism, and indeed social democracy, is that it isn’t just about individual decisions, it’s about working people coming together, hence the word “union”, to improve their lot in life. That implies taking collective, democratic decisions that you then abide by. It therefore seems to me appropriate that unions should take collective decisions on whether to affiliate to Labour or any other party or not at all, rather than a series of thousands of wholly individual opt-in decisions. After all, no one is proposing the reverse, that Labour supporting members of non-collectively affiliated unions like PCS or NUT or Equity should have the ability to tick an opt-in box to give some of their subscriptions to Labour even though their union has collectively decided not to be an affiliate.

I expect the Tories not to understand collectivism as they are philosophically “devil-take-the-hindmost” individualists. I don’t expect people from our Party, who all believe in values of solidarity and the collective democratic decision-making essential to this, to encourage them, so I hope Peter will reconsider his position on this.

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